Why Catholics Care About Economic Justice

In a new Vatican document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (“Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System”), which was approved by Pope Francis, one section explains how the Church’s understanding of the social nature of the human person provides the foundation for the Church’s commitment to economic justice.

The document locates a key underlying source of economic injustice: “our contemporary age has shown itself to have a limited vision of the human person, as the person is understood individualistically and predominantly as a consumer” (9).

Catholic teaching rejects this extreme individualism, recognizing that human persons are social by nature:

Every person is born within a familial environment, enjoying a set of pre-existing relationships without which life would be impossible. The human person develops through the stages of life thanks to pre-existing bonds that actualize one’s being in the world as freedom continuously shared. These are the original bonds that define the human person as a relational being who lives in what Christian Revelation calls “communion”. (10)

This personalist understanding of the person and freedom offers a clear alternative to the extreme individualism of our age. It also provides the baseline for the Catholic understanding of human flourishing and ethics:

This original nature of communion, while revealing in every human person a trace of the affinity with God who creates and calls one into a relationship with himself, is also that which naturally orients the person to the life of communion, the fundamental place for one’s fulfillment. One’s own recognition of this character, as an original and constitutive element of our human identity, allows us to look at others not primarily as potential competitors, but rather as possible allies, in the construction of the good that is authentic only if it is concerned about each and every person simultaneously. (10)

The centrality of the quest for communion leads to a communitarian approach in pursuing social and economic justice that aims at fostering the global common good:

Such relational anthropology helps the human person to recognize the validity of economic strategies that aim above all to promote the global quality of life that, before the indiscriminate expansion of profits, leads the way toward the integral well-being of the entire person and of every person. No profit is in fact legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor. These are three principles that imply and necessarily point to one another, with a view to the construction of a world that is more equitable and united. (10)

Markets, therefore, do not create morality, but must be properly ordered and utilized to promote higher principles of justice that directly flow from the Christian understanding of the human person:

For this reason, progress within an economic system cannot measured only by quantitative and profit-driven standards, but also on the basis of the well-being that extends a good that is not simply material. Every economic system is legitimate if it thrives not merely through the quantitative development of exchange but rather by its capacity to promote the development of the entire person and of every person. (10)


The Alcohol-Cancer Link and Big Alcohol’s Efforts to Downplay it

Stephanie Mencimer has written one of the most important articles in recent years. It’s on alcohol, breast cancer, and the industry’s efforts to try to make moderate alcohol use seem healthy. I encourage everyone to read it in full. Here are just some of the many important points in this exceptional piece:

  • At 47, I was a decade and a half younger than the median age for breast cancer diagnosis in the United States. Was this just bad luck? Maybe, but the journalist in me was still curious to know: Why me? So I dug into the literature on risk factors to see where I might have fit in…While doctors have frequently admonished me for putting cream in my coffee lest it clog my arteries—a correlation that’s been pretty thoroughly debunked—not once has any doctor suggested I might face a higher cancer risk if I didn’t cut back on drinking.
  • I quickly discovered that way back in 1988, the World Health Organization declared alcohol a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that it’s been proved to cause cancer. There is no known safe dosage in humans, according to the WHO. Alcohol causes at least seven types of cancer, but it kills more women from breast cancer than from any other. The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that for every drink consumed daily, the risk of breast cancer goes up 7 percent.
  • The research linking alcohol to breast cancer is deadly solid. There’s no controversy here. Alcohol, regardless of whether it’s in Everclear or a vintage Bordeaux, is carcinogenic.
  • Observant Mormon women don’t drink, and like other populations that abstain, they have significantly lower rates of breast cancer than drinkers. In Utah, Mormon women’s breast cancer rates are more than 24 percent lower than the national average.
  • Fearing health advocates would do to alcohol what they had done to tobacco, the industry fought back with an audacious marketing campaign. Alcohol companies worked to rebrand booze as a staple of a healthy lifestyle, like salads and jogging.
  • Marketing alcohol as a health product should be a tough sell. Cancer is only one of the many ways it can kill you. Drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, injuries, domestic violence, liver disease—alcohol is responsible for the deaths of nearly 90,000 Americans every year, more than double the estimated 40,000 US opioid deaths in 2015.
  • Big Tobacco had set up research centers to dispute science tying smoking to lung cancer and funded research designed to show benefits from smoking, like stress reduction, to help fend off stricter regulation. The alcohol industry took a similar tack, aided by research it had been funding since the late 1960s.
  • Between 1972 and 1993, Turner bragged, the beer foundation and its precursor funded more than 500 studies on alcohol and distributed grants to dozens of researchers and universities.
  • At least a half-dozen government officials working on alcohol policy have left for gigs with the industry over the past 20 years.
  • Like 76 percent of Americans surveyed by the American Heart Association in 2011, I believed a little wine was good for the ticker. The fact is, people wantto believe that drinking is good for them, and the science in this field is easy to manipulate to convince them.
  • Stockwell and Fillmore analyzed decades’ worth of studies on alcohol and heart disease. Once they excluded studies with ex-drinkers—which was most of them—the heart benefits of alcohol largely disappeared. Since then, a host of other studies have found that drinking does not provide any heart benefits. (Some studies have found that drinking small amounts of alcohol—sometimes less than one drink per day—can be beneficial for certain people at risk of heart disease.) Robert Brewer, who runs an alcohol program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, “Studies do not support that there are benefits of moderate drinking.” The Agriculture Department removed language suggesting that alcohol may lower the risk of heart disease in the most recent US Dietary Guidelines.
  • Yet the debate rages on, in part because the industry continues to fund and promote studies indicating that alcohol helps the heart. The NIAAA is currently embarking on another one with $100 million in funding, most of which was solicited directly from the industry, according to the New York Times.
  • Public health experts say that even if there is a small heart benefit from alcohol, it will never outweigh the risks….That’s why the American Heart Association strongly warns people not to start drinking if they don’t already.
  • Other studies suggest that the risk of premenopausal breast cancer goes up 34 percent for every daily drink consumed before the age of 30. And the longer women go between their first period and their first baby, the riskier drinking becomes.
  • Just as the evidence was becoming clear that women are disproportionately vulnerable to alcohol’s cancer risks, the industry mounted a campaign to get them to drink even more.
  • The campaigns seem to have worked. An NIAAA study found that drinking by women jumped 16 percent between 2001 and 2013, more than twice the increase among men. The change is greatest among white women, 71 percent of whom drink today, compared with 64 percent in 1997, according to a Washington Post The alcohol-related death rate for white women more than doubled between 1999 and 2015.
  • South Korea has tightened its recommended alcohol limits, and new Dutch guidelines urge people not to drink at all, but if they do, to consume no more than one drink a day. In December, Ireland’s upper house of parliament approved a cancer warning label for alcohol that is now being debated in the lower house. Even the Russians raised their alcohol taxes.
  • For more than a decade, the alcohol industry has bulldozed long-standing public health regulations designed to reduce harmful consumption. It has mounted successful campaigns to allow the sale of liquor in supermarkets and on Sundays and to loosen restrictions on the hours liquor can be served in restaurants and bars. Not surprisingly, alcohol consumption per capita in the United States, which hit a 34-year low in 1997, has shot up to levels not seen in two decades.
  • While other countries are considering World Health Organization recommendations to impose steeper alcohol taxes, the tax law President Donald Trump signed in December further slashed US alcohol excise taxes, which, thanks to inflation, were already down as much as 80 percent since the 1950s.
  • …higher excise taxes, limits on the number of outlets selling alcohol in a particular area, stricter enforcement of underage drinking laws, and caps on the numbers of days and hours when alcohol can be sold…There’s a huge body of research supporting the effectiveness of these policies, yet there is not a single public health group in Washington lobbying for any of them.
  • Government funding for alcohol harm reduction has also dried up. In 2009, the Justice Department budget for grants to states to enforce underage drinking laws was $25 million. By 2015, it was zero. At the request of the Obama White House, Congress also eliminated an Education Department program that combated underage drinking, among other initiatives.
  • The press, which starting with Morley Safer has flooded readers with stories declaring that drinking is good for your health, has repeatedly accepted alcohol companies’ largesse

Paul Ryan Never Stopped Being Paul Ryan, Unfortunately

EJ Dionne writes:

Ryan has been driven by two priorities throughout his career: slashing taxes on the best-off Americans, and eviscerating social-welfare and safety-net programs in the name of “entitlement reform.” Whatever advanced these objectives was worth doing….

Although Ryan gave warm speeches about compassion, his biggest fear was not that the poor might go without food or health care but, as he once said, that the “safety net” might “become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.”

He later backed away from Rand and acknowledged that the hammock was “the wrong analogy.” But his policies suggested he never abandoned his core faith: If the wealthy did best when given positive incentives in the form of more money, the less fortunate needed to be prodded by less generous social policies into taking responsibility for their own fate.

Given where Ryan’s passions lie, it is unsurprising that he would prop Trump up as long as the president was willing to embrace a modern-day social Darwinism that married efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act with reductions in government’s impositions on the managers and owners of capital. The retiring speaker really does believe that this is the path to the good society. To pursue it, he’ll take help wherever he can get it.

Jonathan Chait writes:

Ryan submitted himself fully to the president. As House Speaker, Ryan has played an indispensable role in insulating Trump from public and legal accountability. Ryan has buried votes that would compel the release of Trump’s tax returns, and unleashed Devin Nunes to run a counter-investigation designed to discredit the Department of Justice and ultimately clear the way for Trump to halt the probe of Russian interference on his behalf.

This has not gone the exact way Ryan would have liked. In his perfect world, Republicans would run on tax cuts, carry out deep cuts to social insurance programs, and everyone in America would be devouring editorials from The Wall Street Journal. But political reality demands compromises. And those constraints have forced Ryan to choose what really matters to him: the protection of the makers from the predations of the takers.

The critics who flay Ryan as a coward have never understood that his actions are a form of idealism. To Ryan, the greatest danger to liberty lies not in a president who defies the rule of law but in high tax rates and a functioning social safety net. When Ryan speaks with pride about the policy accomplishments he helped carry out with Trump, he is not spinning. In Ryan’s worldview, he has struck a powerful blow for liberty against the socialist hordes. Ryan leaves his endangered majority convinced he has done his job well. It is a triumph of his own propaganda that so few people believe he is actually sincere about this.

Jonathan Cohn and Arthur Delaney write:

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has spent the better part of his political career trying to shred America’s social safety net, so that literally tens of millions of Americans would lose supports they use to get food, health care and pay their most basic bills.

Ryan, who announced Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election this fall, mostly hasn’t succeeded in this effort. But he has left an indelible impact on the Republican Party’s identity.

As an architect of the GOP’s budget blueprints, its vice presidential nominee in 2012 and the leader of the House’s majority caucus since 2015, Ryan has laid out a detailed, sweeping agenda of lower taxes and government spending. If ever fully enacted, it would arguably amount to the most radical domestic policy overhaul since the mid-1960s.

Ryan’s one big victory was on taxes ― he was instrumental in writing and passing the bill that President Donald Trump signed late last year. It will dramatically reduce what the wealthiest Americans pay, realizing one of Ryan’s long-held dreams.

But so far, at least, Republicans haven’t privatized Medicare, repealed the Affordable Care Act, or transformed programs like food stamps into smaller, state-run initiatives. And while most Republicans still endorse these proposals, the public does not.

Ultimately, that could be Ryan’s true legacy: Tethering his party to an extreme, deeply conservative agenda that the public rejects, starting with the November midterm elections….

After the 2012 presidential election, Ryan made a concerted effort to put the makers-and-takers rhetoric behind. He traveled the country visiting private-sector charities that rehabilitated drug addicts and helped them find jobs.

But his agenda never really changed.

The poverty tour resulted in a book and a new policy pitch that simply applied the “welfare reform” playbook to all federal poverty programs, albeit with a greater emphasis on case management for poor people.

And just last year, during a public discussion of Medicaid with National Review editor Rich Lowry, he remarked that “we’ve been dreaming” about cuts to such social programs “since you and I were drinking out of a keg.”


Cardinal Chito and the Power of Christian Witness

If Pope Francis’ successor is Pope Francis II, there is a very good chance that Cardinal Luis Tagle, the Archbishop of Manila, will be the man who has succeeded him. And it’s easy to see why.

In I Have Learned From the Least, Cardinal Chito, as he is affectionately known to so many, provides us with an overview of his background and insights into his approach as a bishop, teacher, thinker, and man of God. What stands out most are his integrity, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and commitment to living a life of love.

Cardinal Chito is the paradigmatic ‘Francis Bishop’. His smile, kindness, and infectious joy draw people in to hear the Good News. His focus on the poor and vulnerable reflects the priorities and commands of Christ. He discusses the importance of meeting with the poor—listening and learning from them. Though possessing strong academic credentials, he is conscious of ensuring that abstract ideas do not distort concrete reality. Echoing Pope Francis, he says that theologians should smell of sheep a bit more.

His disciplined, precise mind is used to foster dialogue and fraternity rather than to feed culture wars and legalistic hunts for those who defy subjective purity tests. He notes that “when church leaders speak like angry politicians rather than as loving pastors, young people no longer want to listen to them.” He understands the importance of welcoming young people and fostering a sense of belonging, especially for those who have moved away from their families and feel isolated and alienated. This drives his welcoming approach, while motivating him to reach out to young people wherever they might be, even on social media.

He discusses the threats that consumerism, materialism, and secularism pose to young people without slipping into scolding those who may have been tempted by such false paths. He understands the power of witness. Young people need to see an alternative to those paths. They need to see faithful Christians who live out their faith, who live with authenticity, and live lives worthy of admiration and emulation.

Authenticity as a Christian means showing a sincere, consistent commitment to social justice, and Cardinal Chito’s commitment to the common good is clear. He talks about democracy and human rights. He calls out politicians for ignoring the poor. He emphasizes the need to care for God’s creation, noting that the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer from the effects of climate change. He shows a keen understanding of migration—its root causes and its effects. He discusses the need to humanize globalization so that its benefits are more inclusive. This all reflects his commitment to Catholic social teaching and Gospel values. It shows a Christian worldview that takes its personalism and communitarianism not merely from philosophy or theology books but through encounter, especially with the poor and vulnerable.

In reading the book, one gets the sense that this is a person who is fully secure in his faith, his commitment to the poor, and his belief that love should animate his actions. He does not cling to the truth out of fear or insecurities. This confidence and comfort allows him to listen, engage in dialogue, and place his trust in God.


Steph Curry on His Faith and Being a Role Model

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Doc McStuffins, Moana, and Steph Curry are the kids’ favorite role models—a frequent presence in our home from the tv screen to playtime to posters on the wall. As a toddler, my oldest daughter would walk around exclaiming, “Chef Curry with the pot boy!” Unlike Charles Barkley, who famously rejected being a role model, Curry, the two-time NBA champion and league MVP with the Golden State Warriors, recognizes that he is one and is comfortable with it. He spoke about being a role model, his ‘good boy’ reputation, and his faith in a recent interview with Complex:

I understand the opportunity I have and the magnitude of how many people look up to me. Not just to model their game after me, but also the character, values, and that kind of deal. But it’s not outside my normal daily life. It’s just how I live my life and how I was raised. The fact that that speaks volumes to people is amazing, but there isn’t any extra pressure or anything like that. It’s just who I am. So I guess that helps to be able to handle the spotlight that’s on me. I definitely appreciate the opportunity and the impact that I have, but I don’t really feel any extra pressure….

My faith is what helps me keep everything in perspective. I know I’ve been given these talents to play the game and this is my way to reach millions and millions of people through those talents. That’s what makes me appreciative of everything that happens, good or bad. My mom and my pops were obviously huge influences in that they set that foundation: Basketball is fun, but it’s not the highest priority….

During your career, have you ever faced opposition because of your Christianity or felt pressure to be a different person, or have a different persona?
For sure. Not everybody plays from the same perspective. A lot of people question my good boy vibes and whether it’s genuine or not. There’s always those questions about me and there’s a lot of trash talk that comes directed at me from that too. But if that’s the burden that I’m going to have to carry, then that’s pretty simple for me.


We Need a Revolution in Solidarity

In recent years, we have seen the narrowing of the American middle class and diminished social mobility as economic inequality balloons, the intensification of consumerism, the rise of an opioid crisis, the breakdown of family stability among working class Americans, the resurgence of ugly forms of populism, and the general fraying of communal bonds. Many of these are interconnected. And the personalist communitarianism of the Church offers the best window for understanding what is happening and how we might resist hyperindividualism and the libertarian policies that accompany and drive it (while avoiding alternatives that diminish human dignity).

Chris Arnade, one of the most astute observers of an America that many political and cultural elites cannot or will not see, reflected on some of these developments in a series of tweets earlier today:

What is needed is radical: a revolution in solidarity. We need to reform and re-democratize our political institutions. We need to build an economic system that rebuilds the middle class, increases distributive justice, and promotes more widespread flourishing. We need policies that ensure everyone has access to their most basic needs, including quality healthcare and childcare. People need jobs that reflect their dignity and increased access to treatment for drug abuse, not the legalization and commercialization of additional illicit substances, so that even more corporations get rich preying on the vulnerable. The federal government needs to empower intermediary institutions that strengthen local communities rather than ignoring their responsibilities and forcing these institutions to pick up the government’s slack.

But we also need cultural changes. An obsession with individual autonomy not only harms our communities, it is often a recipe for misery for the person who embraces it. Human beings are social by nature; the pursuit of unlimited, uninhibited choice does not lead to human flourishing. Consumerism will not fill the spiritual void of those who have left religion behind or do not live it out in their daily lives. We need more people to believe in the importance of duty, the value and permanence of marriage, and that morality is more than enlightened self-interest. We need people to resist objectifying others, even in a culture that floods people with the message that it is only natural and human to do so. Though all humans inevitably come up short in our attempts to live morally, we need more people to believe in virtue and order their lives around this commitment.

Pope Francis is calling for radical change. But it’s up to everyday Catholics to promote this revolution by breaking from bourgeois conformity, resisting the currents of individualism and libertarianism, and fighting for the common good in a culture that is often hostile to the demands of human dignity. It’s not an easy road. But Christianity is about following the way of Christ, not a path to comfort and approval.


Critical Questions Remain Over Trump’s Missile Strikes and Syria Policy

Overall, Syrian democracy activists were ecstatic about President Donald Trump’s strikes on the base from which the Syrian regime launched its latest chemical attacks. After years of impunity, the Assad regime paid a price (however tiny) for their crimes against humanity. Western proponents of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, the enforcement of international law and norms, and more direct action to end the war, along with other critics of the Obama administration’s largely hands-off policy, have on average been more ambivalent. And rightfully so.

Many questions remain: Why did Trump strike—for his personal popularity, to be the anti-Obama, because he just now realized what Assad has been doing? If he cares about Syrian civilians, why does he show no compassion for the refugees fleeing Assad and ISIS?  What are his strategic goals (if they exist)—enforcing the norm against chemical weapon use, protecting innocent civilians, shifting the dynamics on the ground to increase the odds of a resolution to the conflict? Is this part of a larger strategy or an emotional response to the barbarism seen in images and videos of the attack (the CNN Effect, as political scientists call it)? Does Trump have the ability to effectively carry out any larger strategy given his general incompetence and unwillingness to study policy details? How will his relationship with Russia affect his response to their apparent complicity in these crimes? Does Trump now realize the role Assad has played and continues to play in strengthening extremists or not?

While many oppose a status quo that has left half a million people dead, displaced roughly half the country, and created a refugee crisis that threatens Western democracy, these questions and others make many who are open to intervention hesitate before endorsing the administration’s course of action or becoming optimistic about future Trump administration policies. The costs of further intervention (whatever form it could take) are real, as are the risks (as with non-intervention), particularly in the wake of the Russian intervention to save the regime from collapsing—a responsible analyst must not only consider what the best course of action should be, but the likelihood that an administration is inclined to, and capable of, carrying it out.

While a movement away from ‘America First’ populist nationalism is certainly encouraging, those who value the common good are right to remain skeptical of an administration that has yet to prove its intentions or efficacy. The lessons of Iraq should not lead to isolationism, but precisely this type of skepticism with a careful consideration of who is intervening and why. The President’s competence (or incompetence) can have a dramatic impact on the probability of success and potential costs of intervention. This must be considered in calculations of the justness and strategic prudence of particular courses of action. Can the wrong man carry out the right policy? Certainly, but with so many unanswered questions, caution is the most sensible response right now.

Here are a few articles on the chemical weapon attacks and reactions from those who have been critical of Western indifference to Assad’s mass murder:

‘My entire family’s gone’: Syrian man says 25 relatives died in strike by CNN: “Youssef arrived in his parents’ house to find his two brothers dead. Panicked, he rushed back to his home to check on his wife and babies. “There was foam on their mouths, there were convulsions. They had all been on the floor,” Youssef told CNN on Wednesday, sobbing. “My kids, Ahmad and Aya, and my wife… they were all martyred. “My entire family’s gone.””

Teen lost 19 family members in Syria chemical attack: ‘I saw the explosion’ by CNN: “In all, he said, 19 of his relatives were killed Tuesday morning. When Mazin said that devastating number, his voice cracked. He lost his struggle to maintain self-control. His face contorted, his red eyes filled with tears. He plopped down sobbing on the plastic chair in the hospital corridor. Mazin is only 13 years old. He is a child. And this is his world.”

Trump might be going to war. But he has no plans for establishing peace. by Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras: “Yet as analysts who have argued for greater U.S. military engagement to end the Syrian civil war, we find ourselves conflicted about the president’s decision: We fear there is simply no plan for what comes next. To succeed beyond Thursday’s limited strikes, American leaders must decide on a clear set of objectives, a realistic desired final outcome, a theory of the case for how to get there and a solid understanding of the risks. We see three potential options for how the president could move forward.”

What Effect Will Trump’s Airstrikes Really Have? By Daniel Byman: “If the strike does achieve the President’s objective and Asad no longer uses chemical weapons against his own people, that’s good news—but it is little consolation for the tens of thousands of Syrians who are likely to die in the coming months from regime barrel bombs or indiscriminate Russian airstrikes or to be tortured and killed in the dictator’s prisons.”

Syrian opposition leader: Trump has a chance to save Syria By Josh Rogin: “Short of that, the Syrian opposition is asking the Trump administration to use any new leverage it has to demand a nationwide ceasefire, to stop the killing of civilians by the Assad regime and press for international access to all besieged areas and the jails where Assad is holding thousands of civilians in custody. They also believe now is the time to push for a new political process to move Assad out of power.”

A Practical Guide for Avoiding Fallacies on Syria by Shadi Hamid: “It is abundantly clear that the Assad regime will not negotiate in good faith or make any significant concessions on its own. We’ve hoped for that since the earliest Arab League efforts in 2011. The credible threat of force (or its use) is the only thing that is likely to change Assad’s calculus. If his survival isn’t at stake, he has little reason to negotiate much of anything.”

This May Signal That the Free Ride for Mass Murder Is Over by Frederic Hof: “Bashar al-Assad’s political survival strategy of collective punishment and mass homicide is a gift that keeps on giving to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other forms of violent, terrorist extremism.”

So Trump Attacked Assad. What Now? by Charles Lister: “Assad cannot and will never put Syria back together again, but partition is not an answer. Foreign intervention for rapid regime change promises only further chaos, but determined U.S. leadership backed up by the credible and now proven threat of force presents the best opportunity in years to strong-arm actors on the ground into a phase of meaningful de-escalation, out of which eventually, a durable negotiation process may result.”